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MArch 16, 2019

 

We have now entered the month of Adar II, during which we will celebrate Purim. The statement משנכנס אדר מרבים בשמחה he who brings in Adar should increase happiness, is looked upon as a commandment by many Jews. During the month of Adar, there is an increased levity and humour in traditional Jewish communities. People are more inclined to make jokes in ritual settings. It’s like the Jewish April Fools Day, only it lasts a month. This change in behaviour can be very positive and beneficial. As Canadians we tend to be a bit dry and reserved in both our speech and our behaviour. Our  social etiquette discourages excited emotional expression and gregariousness. Most people don’t speak to others in public; they speak only to those they know. This repression of our social nature is unhealthy and can lead to serious problems like depression. The commandment to lighten up is quite necessary for most of us. Life’s stresses, if unchecked, can cause major emotional and even physical health issues. We often are taking ourselves too seriously. Particularly at the end of winter, when seasonal depression is at its peak, Adar comes along and says we should take ourselves and our problems with a grain of salt. It is no coincidence that Mardi Gras, Carnival, and Purim all take place at the end of the winter. There is so much built-up repression and angst that we need some fun and wildness. We need to go crazy temporarily in order to avoid going crazy permanently. That’s part of what Purim and Adar aim to achieve. In a paradoxical way, disorder restores order.

In honour of Adar, I’ll leave you with a joke:

A Rabbi and Minister were close friends in a small town. They would often meet and discuss their problems. One day the Minister came to the Rabbi with a quandry:

“Someone in my congregation stole my bike. I’m pretty sure I know who did it but I don’t want to approach them directly. I feel that would cause unnecessary shame and be counterproductive. How can I inspire this person to return it willingly without confrontation?”

The Rabbi thought for a minute and then suggested:

“Why don’t you give a sermon next Sunday about the Ten Commandments, and when you come to the commandment against theft, you can mention that your bike was stolen? Surely this individual will feel remourse and return your bike on his own.”

The Minister loved the idea. The following Sunday afternoon they met again for lunch.

The Rabbi asked if his idea had worked.

“It did,” said the Minister. “I began to list off the Ten Commandments and when I came to the commandment against adultery I suddenly remembered where I left my bike.”

Shabbat Shalom,

MArch 9, 2019

 

Today and tomorrow (Thursday and Friday Mar. 7 and 8) are a double Rosh Chodesh beginning the month of Adar II, the extra Adar added in a leap year. All dates of significance which normally occur during the month of Adar in a non-leap year (Purim, Hebrew birthdays and yahrzeits) are, in a leap year, marked on Adar II. That means Purim is in two weeks. Many of us know the song, Misheh Nikhnas Adar, which goes, “When we bring in the month of Adar, we increase our joy”. This line comes from Mishnah Taanit. The full statement actually goes like this Rav Yehuda son of Shmuel, the son of Shilat says “Just as we increase our joy at the onset of Adar, so we decrease our joy at the onset of Av.” (Mishna Taanit 4:6) In the Gemara, the ensuing discussions around this Mishnah, Rav Papa adds: “Therefore, a Jewish person who is in a civil dispute should take the matter to court during the month of Adar when he has good mazal, and should avoid doing so in the month of Av when there is bad mazal.”  Rav Papa here is explicitly commenting on Jewish “cosmic luck” (i.e. mazal), when the stars are aligned to bring us positive opportunities and outcomes. This is in direct opposition to the Talmudic statement, “Jewish people are not affected by mazal” (Shabbat 156a) i.e. Jewish people are not affected by and should pay no attention to astrological influences.

The medieval commentators attempt to reconcile these two views. The Ritva (R. Yom Tov b. Avraham, 1250-1330) argues that the general statement on mazal in Massekhet Shabbat abides with only two exceptions: Av and Adar. The Maharsha (R. Shmuel Eliezer haLevi Idels, 1555-1631) suggests that even though the astrological forces do not directly affect a person’s luck, it is through these cosmic bodies that one’s merit or guilt is channeled to us. R. Shlomo Eliezer Alphandri (1820-1930) taught that the statement “Jewish people are not affected by mazal” is intended to caution us away from thinking that our fate is determined by astrological forces and not by G-d. As long as we are aware that G-d is the ultimate cause of all things, good and bad, we can acknowledge that there is, sometimes, a cosmic energy which does influence and effect our lives. Whatever our sign, whatever our luck, we must know that it always be overcome by our will. Purim is very much about this tension: we cannot allow chance to determine our fate, we must take control. At the same time, we cannot deny that there is sometimes a synchronicity in the Universe that comes to our aid if we’re in the right place at the right time.

Shabbat Shalom,

MArch 2, 2019

 

As we carry on in Daf Yomi (daily Talmud study) we are still floating over a discussion on the gid hanasheh, the sciatic nerve which is forbidden from eating (the 3rd mitzvah in the Torah)Talmudic discussions on a particular Mishnaic statement such as: Liability for consuming the gid hanashe begins at 1 ketzyit (1 olive in weight) can go on for many dapim. These discussions form closed units called a sugya (pl.sugyot). In the flow of this particular sugya, we have reached the point where the Rabbis in the discussion begin to ‘wax midrashic’:

Rabbi Yosi said in the name of Rabbi Ḥanania: What is the meaning of the verse “A thing was sent at Yaakov and it fell upon Israel” (Isaiah 9). The “thing sent at Yaakov” was the injury against his Gid Hanashe. That which “fell upon Israel” is the prohibition against eating from Gid Hanashe of any beast.” Rabbi Hanania revealed a layer of meaning in the text that was always concealed within that verse. It is the bringing to light of these hidden ideas which makes Torah a living document.

“And a man came and wrestled with him until daybreak” (Genesis 32). Rabbi Yitzchak said, This teaches that a Torah scholar must not go out alone at night. “And he [the angel] said, ‘Let me go for dawn is rising!’” [Rabbi Yitzhak teaches when the angel begged Yaakov to let him go] Yaakov asked ‘Are you a robber or a gambler that you are fearful of daylight?’ The angel answered, ‘From the day I was created by G-d until now I have never been called to sing praise to Hashem.’ Rabbi Hananel’s statement supports this idea, as Rabbi Hananel said: There are three classes of angels who offer praises to Hashem each day; one class says “Kadosh”, another says “Kadosh”, another says “Kadosh ADNY Tzeva’ot”.

Someone else posited: the Jewish people are more precious to Holy One than the Ministering Angels for Israel can sing praise to Hashem at any hour and the Ministering Angels can only offer praise once. Some say, once a week. Some say, once a month. Some say, once a year. Some say, once every Jubilee (50 years). Some say, once in eternity. And the Jewish people can utter the Name after only two words (שמע ישראל ה"  Sh’ma Yisrael Hashem) whereas the Ministering Angels must say three words before they may utter the Name (קדוש קדוש קדוש ה" Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, Hashem).

This is how the Talmudic mind works; it is an associative stream of consciousness that flows organically from the subject matter (the forbidden measurements of sciatic nerve) into matters of spirit and prayer. One thing about Talmud is that you would never have any idea what was written in it unless you read it. But that’s why you have me :)  

Shabbat Shalom,

February 23, 2019

 

We now come to the third mitzvah found in the Torah, starting from the beginning: the prohibition against eating from the gid hanasheh (גיד הנשה), known to us as the thigh tendon and the sciatic nerve. This prohibition, according to Genesis itself, stems from the incident wherein Yaakov is permanently injured while wrestling an angel on the bank of the river Yabok. The angel wrenches his thigh-socket, and for the rest of his life Yaakov walks with a limp. Therefore the Israelites do not eat from the sciatic nerve – Genesis 32:32.

This prohibition applies to all behemot, four-legged ruminant cattle (sheep, goat, cow etc.). The sciatic nerve must be removed in its entirety. The process of removing this nerve is extremely complicated and time-consuming, requiring a high degree of skill and knowledge. Because it is so labour intensive, most kosher butchers must sell the hind quarters to non-kosher butchers in order to make a profit. This has meant that a kosher filet mignon is almost unheard of. In Argentina, which has perhaps the largest meat industry in the world, the technique of removing the sciatic nerve—known as porging—is more widely known and so it is possible there and in Israel to order a filet mignon.

The universe has incredible synchronicity. As I’ve mentioned before, one of my personal practices is to read one double-sided page of Talmud each day. This is known as daf yomi, and is practiced in coordination with other Jews around the world; we all read the same page each day. It just so happens that we are currently studying Massekhet Hulin, which deals mostly with the laws of kashrut. It also just so happens that this week, as we come to this third mitzvah in the Torah, we are currently in the section of this tractate which deals specifically with the Gid Hanasheh.

In this chapter, the Talmud discusses the different factors that must be taken into consideration when selling meat to a non-kosher butcher. There is a clearly-expressed tension between observing the dietary laws properly and ensuring that kosher butchers can make a profit. Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria adjures us to be very thrifty with our food expenditures and recommends a pure subsistence diet. Two generations later, Rav Nachman explains that Rabbi Elazar was of a very hearty stock and could survive on very minimal provisions. His generation, on the other hand, were of weaker constitution and can spare no expense on food. He even says one should borrow money to ensure there is food in the house. For those of us who keep kosher, we know this tension all too well.

Shabbat Shalom,

February 16, 2019

 

Last weekend I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel of Rabbis for a regional USY convention. My colleagues and I had received questions the week before, some of which had to do with challenges facing the Conservative movement, others were about issues that face humanity as a whole. I was so impressed by this group of young people, most of whom were from various congregations, one of whom was from Beit Rayim. These young men and women are very bright and well-spoken people who think deeply and care deeply about serious issues and about Conservative Judaism.

There were a lot of important questions that afternoon but I will share one with you: Should synagogues change tradition to adapt to a more politically correct world? One answer from a Rabbi with decades of experiences was a hard and final “No.” He later elaborated that, “what is politically correct one day is politically incorrect the next day.” Another Rabbi added, “politically correct doesn’t mean it’s correct.”

There are many potential applications and intentions for such a question and it can go in different directions. Are we talking about not circumcising our sons because the zeitgeist of western culture tells us not to? That’s not on the table for me or any other Conservative Rabbi. Are we talking about changing the wording of our prayers to include women (which Beit Rayim does) or perhaps a grand undertaking to degenderize all pronouns in the Hebrew language?

For my money, there are two issues (aside from gender) in Jewish prayer and scripture which chafe against the Western post-modern sense of propriety: the particularism of the Jewish people and the violence of the text itself. These may not bother everyone so much, but nearly all young Jewish people and a great many of the older generation today have a very universalistic and humanitarian outlook on the world. We don’t feel G-d loves or should love our people above any other, but our prayers are written as though we do. We feel everyone in the world has the right to life, peace and security but in our most sacred text, the Torah, we are explicitly commanded to wipe other nations off the face of the Earth, even if they sue for peace.

In my humble opinion, we should not change any of this. Changing the words won’t make the problems go away. Only by retaining the record of the issues which have affected us – which still affect us — can we ever hope to resolve them. We need to have conversations about these things, to struggle with them. We need to find new ways to think about our traditions; hithadshut, constant renewal of the Torah is a task of every generation and is a critical part of keeping our traditions alive. We can do that without changing the words. If someone doesn’t say the matriachs in the first blessing of the Amidah, it doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate women’s rights and narratives in Judaism. Saying the matriarchs in the Amidah doesn’t help the 8 year old girl in Afghanistan who can’t go to school because she’s a girl. When I daven the Sim Shalom bracha, I say bless your people Israel in peace (in Hebrew it works way better) but my kavvanah, my intention, is for all of humanity, and in fact all living beings. This kavvanah though new, is ultimately indigenous to the Torah because we know that G-d created and loves all beings.

Change has always been a part of Judaism as the Torah is an ever-evolving living text, but we must be very conscious and intentional about what we change and why. If we remove everything potentially offensive from the Torah, there would not be a whole lot left.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

February 9, 2019

 

Mitzvah of the Week!

In our long journey through the Taryag (תריג = 613) Mitzvot we last left off on the Mitzvah of Mila, ritual circumcision. This is rather appropriate as I have now fulfilled that very mitzvah as of one week ago. Conveniently, I have also fulfilled the minimum requirement of the first mitzvah found in the Torah, be fruitful and multiply, which is to have one child of each sex.

 

Some further insight into the mitzvah of Mila is the idea that G-d purposely does not create us in a perfected state. It is incumbent on each of us to reach perfection through the performance of Torah and mitzvot. An allusion to this is the fact that males must be circumcised on the eighth day. Why eight? Seven, in Judaism, represents a completed cycle, a finished project. The maximal level of human spiritual potential is represented by the number seven. Eight, then, is one level up from that. Eight represents the transcendence of our prior potential. According to the great Sage, Shammai, we Israelites must be ma’alin b’kodesh, elevating in holiness. Thus, we circumcise our boys on the eighth day, to represent that the circumcision itself is an act of perfection and transcendence of the human form.

Shabbat Shalom,

February 2, 2019

 

Tu B’Shvat has come and gone. It seemed impossible this year to celebrate Tu B’Shvat here in Toronto. The early beginnings of spring were not felt here in the last few weeks. Most of us are focused on keeping our homes warm, digging ourselves out of ice and snow, and getting around this busy city. Winter has only just begun. Nonetheless, the mazal of Tu B’Shvat, the cosmic forces rising within plant life of this earth, did happen. That aspect of Tu B’Shvat is still active and present with us.

 What is the mazal of Tu B’Shvat about? As I’ve taught previously, in the ancient understanding of Creation, G-d plants reality as a ‘tree’ and the universe manifests by way of this tree. Tu B’Shvat uses the light of the full moon to help us ‘climb the tree’ of reality and ascend to a higher state of awareness.

The Universe expands through four stages: Emanation, Creation, Formation, and Actuation, referred to as the four worlds. In the 16th Century Ottoman Palestine, a hotbed of spiritual growth and innovation, Rabbi Yitzhak Luria and his society of colleagues and students instituted Seder Tu B’Shvat, as a means to climb the tree of reality through the four worlds. Mirrored after Pesach, the Tu B’Shvat Seder consists of four cups of wine paired with four small courses of tree fruit, each stage paralleling one of the four worlds. The cups are all different: red, blush, rose, and white, paired with four different forms of fruit : ones with pits and shells, one with shells, one with pits and one with neither. The progression is towards a state of purity, to the root of worlds. Concomitant to this ‘cosmic’ ascension is an internal ascension through different aspects of the soul: nefesh, ruach, neshamah, and shoresh neshama, the root of the soul.

This practice prepares us for the spiritual liberation of Pesach exactly two moons prior (three in a leap year such as this year). By rising to the root of reality, the root of our own souls, we can come up out of the Egypt of our lives, whatever that may be for each of us. Soon we will begin Adar, which attempts to deflect the harshness of winter with joy and humour. Without joy, we cannot leave Egypt. Let us be glad and joyful. Let us be positive and speak kindly to one another. Hand in hand we can lead one another out of Egypt.

Shabbat Shalom,

January 26, 2019

 

As many of you know, Chloe and I were blessed with a beautiful baby boy last week. As we make the adjustment to life with a newborn in the house, a number of you have reached out to offer help. We are so grateful for the help you can give us by signing up for a meal or assisting in some other way. Many of you remember how difficult it can be when you first bring a new born home; the whole routine gets thrown up in the air. This happens to all of us, even in the best of circumstances. Now more than ever, I am cognizant of how much more difficult it must be for couples and single mothers who are not in the best of circumstances.

If you are inspired to do a mitzvah in our honour, I would like to direct your attention to one of the many crisis pregnancy centres in the GTA. There are countless couples and single mothers who are in need of basic necessities like diapers and formula. To make a donation or volunteer at one of the centres near you, visit one of the sites listed below. Also, if you know someone who is pregnant and facing a difficult time, please refer them:

http://www.mscpc.ca/ Markham-Stouffville Crisis Pregnancy Centre

https://iamnotalone.ca/  Pregnancy Care Centre, North York

 

Shabbat Shalom,

January 19, 2019

 

In a few days Tu B’Shvat will be upon us. According to the Mishnah, this date is Rosh Hashanah L’Ilan, the Tree. It held importance in Biblical times as a date on the agricultural calendar of the kingdom. As is known, Israelite farmers living on the land were responsible for tithing their assets on an annual basis to support the Levites and their work in the Temple. It was on the fifteenth of Shvat that farmers would be called upon to account for any fruit bearing trees. Since the destruction of the Temple, Tu B’Shvat faded into obscurity, as tithes were no longer accepted.

During the Gaonic period there is some mention of special piyyutim (liturgical prayers) for the well-being of the trees and the land on this day. In the early medieval period, the Jewish communities of Askenaz observed a custom of eating the fruits of Eretz Yisrael and the seven species. The yeshivot of Worms would apparently give their students a day off, and the teachers would give them some cake and liquor. In the seventeenth century in Tzfat (a culture which served as an incubator for Kabbalah and mysticism), the tradition of the Tu B’Shvat Seder developed. The concept was to mirror the Passover Seder, with the ritual consumption of wine and fruit and with deep Torah learning.

The Torah recognizes trees as a venerable life-form, according tree fruit a different bracha than fruit of the earth. Deuteronomy forbids Israelite armies from using trees as weapons of war if they are fruit bearing (Deut. 20). Beyond the reverence for life and the physical trees, trees have significant value as a function of Torah. Why is Torah called a tree? Because it behaves like a tree. The Talmudic process: the dialectic flow of dispute follows the pattern of a tree. A law can be understood as X or Y, but there can be additional parameters for each understanding, yielding Xa or Xb or Ya or Yb. Multiple binaries produce a ‘branching out’ effect, as we see with trees. The idea of a logic tree, of course, applies to all levels of reality. According to Einstein, every time a decision is made, multiple universes are created, the universe in which that decision was made and all of the potential universes in which another decision was made.

Your family tree is an expression of tree like behaviour within the function of biological reproduction. On a larger scale, the evolution of life from single celled organisms to the world we see today is also expressed as a tree. The concept of interconnectivity between all living creatures, and our dependence on our fellow humans and other life forms is guides us to live and behave with kindness and respect for all beings. To see the other as one with the self is, in the words of Hillel, klal gadol baTorah, the main rule of Torah. To see the other as a competitor whose interests conflict with our own is like one leaf on a branch trying to get more sunlight and water than another.

There are many more teachings in Judaism about trees; I have only now just scratched the surface. The takeaway is that Torah is to be found everywhere, especially in the natural world. If nature can teach us Torah, then the Tree is one of the oldest and most distinguished Rabbis.

Shabbat Shalom,

January 12, 2019

 

Earlier this week we began the month of Shvat (שבט), most noted for Tu B’Shvat (טו בשבט, the 15th of Shvat). As I’ve taught on previous occasions, there are several active Jewish calendars which run their own course concurrently. Rosh Hashanah is the civil New Year in which Shvat would be considered the 5th month, and the 1st of Nisan (two weeks before Pesach) is the Biblical New Year in which Shvat would be considered the 11th month. The names of the months as we know them do not come from the Torah (the Torah only discusses the Biblical year wherein the months are named by their ordinal numbers, 1st, 2nd, 3rd). The names of all the months actually come from the Akkadian language and were imported into the Jewish custom during the Babylonian exile (586-460 BCE). Shvat in Akkadian means ‘heavy rain’ likely having to do with the Middle Eastern rainy reason.

This year is a leap year, which means there is an extra month of Adar. Why of all the months is Adar the repeated month? In the Biblical year, Adar is the final month, thus it is a logical place to add an extra month. But why do we need a leap month in the first place? As is well-known, we observe a lunar calendar; however, we have a specific commandment to observe the Passover rites and festival during Aviv, the springtime, and the seasons fluctuate according to our Earth’s position relative to the Sun, thus relying on the solar calendar as well. The lunar year is eleven days shorter than the solar year, so if we were to observe a lunar calendar without leap years, the lunar year would retrograde through the solar year (like our Muslim cousins) and we would end up with Passover in winter. (Imagine!)

Since the Gaonic period, the Hebrew calendar is fixed—leap years now occur at regularly slotted intervals and we know every leap year from now until the year 8000. However, during the Rabbinic period, the Rabbinic courts—the Sanhedrin—would determine if and when to enact a leap year. If the summer harvest had a bad yield, the following year would be made a leap year. Alternatively, if the highways leading to Jerusalem were still too muddy on the 1st of Adar for heavy traffic of people and goods, the Sanhedrin would enact leap year immediately, making that the 1st of Adar Aleph. The presumption is that a bad crop meant that the lunar month had retrograded into an earlier part of the season, thus a poorer yield. In the case of the roads, heavy rains meant that it was still winter as Shvat is the month of heavy rains, thus indicating the lunar year had retrograded. 

Much of this goes unnoticed today as we have a fixed calendar which functions automatically with or without our awareness, but understanding the realities which lie behind our calendar are key to understanding how Rabbinic application of Biblical law form what we know as the Jewish cycle of time today.

Shabbat Shalom,

January 5, 2019

 

Shalom Friends,

I am glad to be back in the office and shul as there is so much for us to do and learn together.

In the second parasha in the Book of Shemot, Exodus, Moshe is assigned his sacred duty to return to Egypt and deliver G-d’s message to the Israelites, to demand of Pharoah that they be released from bondage, and to lead them out of Egypt. The saga of the Exodus is, of course, reminiscent of the Passover Haggaddah, which feels oddly out of place as we read it this week, in the middle of winter.

I have been more than once asked: How come we don’t read this Parasha in the spring time around Passover? The answer is twofold: 1) as a rule, Torah readings for holidays are always the verses dealing with the commandments for those days, e.g. the various Passover sacrifices read on all the days of Passover, and 2) when we begin the Torah reading cycle as we do, after Shemini Atzeret, the mathematical inevitability is that we will arrive in Exodus in early winter. Interestingly, early winter—or the month of Tevet—is essentially the mid-way point between the Sukkot and Passover. 

We Jewish people are in this world because we are on slichut, a mission from G-d. When we left on our mission—the first Passover in Egypt—we were given moadot (meeting times) in the form of three Regalim (pilgrimage festivals, Ḥaggim). These times we are commanded to reconnect with G-d in a direct way, like astronauts checking in with mission control. But because of the Earth’s rotational pattern, and the commandment that Passover always take place in springtime, there is a long stretch between check-ins, and at this moment we are the farthest we will get from either one: Sukkot and Passover. Thus, we read about the Exodus, Moses and Pharaoh, the Israelites and the Ten Plagues, this week so that our spirits are not dulled by the cold and darkness of winter.

Keep your head up, eyes open, and hearts open, friends. The Exodus is every day.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

December 22, 2018

 

Last week, I wrote about the similarity between the Talmud and single-malt whiskey; both being composed of many layers and textures, full of richness and complexity. Both require a discerning palette to appreciate their three-dimensionality. In the course of this teaching, I touched on another similarity: that between Talmud and the Internet. The many layers of the Talmud, in particular those of the medieval scholars Rashi (1040-1105, Provence) and the Tosafits (12-13th centuries, Germania) create “links” to multiple other sources: scripture, mishnayot, midrashot, and between various sections and tractates of the Talmud itself. What arose from these links is something academics now call intertextuality, a state of relationality or entanglement between two texts; one text influences the interpretation of the other and vice versa.

Hyper-texting occurs at the earliest layers of the Talmud but becomes increasingly prolific in the late medieval or Renaissance period. With the advent of the printing press, the Talmud became widely published with commentaries in the margins in the fashion to which we are accustomed. Also widely published were the halakhic codes that developed from the latter layers of commentary. One shortcoming of the codes was that, by and large, they do not cite their sources in the Talmud. Eventually, one scholar by the name of Rabbi Yehoshua Boaz ben Shimon Barukh (d. 1557, Italy) created a gloss which cross-referenced every law stated in the Talmud to its corresponding location in three major codes of his time: the Shulkhan Arukh, the Mishnah Torah, and Sefer Mitzot HaGadol. This colossal project extended the Talmudic internet far beyond its borders. With the typical books found in a Beit Midrash or a Yeshivah one can “surf” the Torah by following links from one text to another and back.

The Torah is called a Tree of Life because it is alive; it is every growing and expanding with each generation adding its own commentaries and elements. It is also interconnected, the way all the leaves on the tree are connected through their branches and boughs. The internet is also similar to a tree, having pages that branch out from a main page. In terms of the internal structures and patterns the Talmud can be thought of as the world’s first internet. Then again, following that logic, the original structure is laid out in a tree which predated humanity by millions of years.

Shabbat Shalom,

 

 

 

December 15, 2018

 

This past Shabbat we celebrated our annual Kiddush Club Shabbat. In honour of this occasion, I shared a D’var Torah on the similarity of Torah to whiskey. You can download a PDF of the handout I used here. The Talmud, while appearing to be a uniform document, is actually composed of many layers. For those who missed it (or for those who enjoyed more than one whiskey afterwards and can’t remember what I said):

The Mishnaic layer (200 BCE-200 CE) is the foundational document containing the Oral Laws passed down from generation to generation. They contain numerous and conflicting opinions of how to practice Torah laws, some of those opinions are unclear in their specificity. Thus the Gemaraic layer (200-600 CE), which comprises a 400 year debate among the students Mishnaic scholars, attempts to explain the Mishna’s meaning, identify the ruling opinions, and harmonize any contradictions. The process is left open-ended with many questions unresolved and without clear ruling opinions. The result is a fluid document which circumscribes the question of how to think Talmudically. The “answers” are variable. Thus, only one who had mastered the Talmud sufficiently was fit to issue rulings on halakhic questions (e.g. when is candle-lighting? Is this chicken kosher?). Those who had mastered it were called Gaonim (geniuses) and during the Gaonic period (600-1000 CE) they received hundreds of questions from Jews throughout the “old worlds” on such questions. During the Medieval period their responses were collected and anthologized into what is now called Responsa literature. Out of this literature, Medieval scholars such as Maimonides developed the first codes of Jewish law (e.g. the Mishnah Torah and the Shulchan Aruch).

On the actual page (daf) of Talmud, one can see both the Mishna and Gemara layers in the center of the page (in the large text). The Talmud itself is the Mishnah plus the Gemara. On the inside of the page we have the commentary of Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, Provence). This commentary revolutionized the study of Talmud, making the meaning of the Talmud clear and accessible. However, every translation is an interpretation, and there is, as the Talmud shows us, always more than one way to understand a passage.

Thus on the outside of the page we have the commentary of the Tosafists, who often disagree with Rashi and bring exhaustive proofs to make their case. Sometimes they agree with him. This aside, the Tosafists, (who are writing more than a century later from within a German Talmudic culture) have an entirely different interest from Rashi.  While Rashi is content to explain the meaning of the words on the page, the Tosafists take issue when Rashi’s understanding contradicts the Talmud in other places. The Talmud itself contains 20 tractates and Rashi treated each one as its own independent ecosystem. For the Tosafits, the Talmud is a unified document and must therefore present a uniform message. In their endeavour to resolve intra-Talmudic conflicts, the Tosafists are simply continuing the work of the Talmud itself: interpreting and re-interpreting until it makes sense.

In the outer layers of the page we have other, later commentaries. The commentary of Rabenu Nisim Gaon is a short-hand version of the Talmud which relays only the halakhic outcomes (the “answers” which were sought in the Medieval period, later becoming the codes). The Ein Mishpat Ner Mitzvah is a project of Rabbi Yeshua Boaz b. Shimon Barukh which links the laws stated in the Talmud to their corollary citations in the major law codes.

When you are looking at a daf of Talmud, you are not looking at a uniform statement. You are looking at a multilayered, three-dimensional object. A sheet of Talmud is a time machine that can transport you through three millenia of Jewish scholarship. Through it, you can witness the maturation of an idea, much like one can appreciate the many layers and texture of a fine aged whiskey. You can taste the spirit of the plant and the oak in which it was aged. You can enjoy the richness and complexity. That is Torah.

Shabbat Shalom,

December 8, 2018

Chanu Koh

In his writings on Chanukah, the Gerrer Rebbe—Reb Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter—breaks the word,חנוכה  Chanukah into two separate wordsחנו כה  Chanu koh, which means, “they shall camp here.” This alludes to the time when the Jewish people dwelt in their rightful place, our ancestral homeland. It was when we lived in Eretz Yisrael, that we merited to receive the rest of Shabbat and the Yamim Tovim. It is not just the physical space, but the closeness to G-d—who is calledהמקום  the place—which gave us access to the spiritual revitalization which comes through honouring this sacred time.

The true miracle of Chanukah (and Purim, concomitantly) is that even after the Temple was destroyed and we were uprooted from our land, forced into exile in strange and distant lands, stripped of our cultural autonomy, we still have a way to connect to ourמקום  our place. Although it is through darkness and haze, we can feel the rest and security of Shabbat even during the week. Even in the midst of our exile, in a land, time and culture so distant that our ancestors could scarcely fathom, the light of Chanukah opens a gateway for that original light to shine through into our time. If we think of our traditional paradigm—we have Shabbat, light, Eretz Yisrael on one side, and the six days of the week, darkness, and the exile on the other—Chanukah is the vehicle whereby we can shine the light of Shabbat into the six days of the week.

The Hasidic masters all teach that the purpose of Shabbat is to enlighten us to the divine reality of the universe at all times, not just on Shabbat. The purpose of Havdalah, of quenching the flame in the wine, is to transfer the elevation and spiritual refinement of Shabbat into the coarseness and physicality of the week. Chanukah comes once a year as a potent catalyst in this task by literally shining lights for an entire weekly cycle, thus illuminating all of the days.

As we near the end of this special festival, contemplate and meditate on this as you light your candles—allow the light of Shabbat to enter the weekday and allow the Chanukah lights to open a portal for you to connect to the same place, the same מקום as your ancestors all those centuries ago.

Chanukah Sameach

Shabbat Shalom,

December 1, 2018

 

Today in Jewish History

Today, Thursday November 29th, is a little known national holiday in the State of Israel. On the 29th of November 1947 the United Nations General Assembly voted in favour of the Palestine Partition Plan, paving the road for the Declaration of the State of Israel the following year. The festivities of the 29th of November, since Independence, were overshadowed by the exuberance of Yom Ha’atzma’ut, but it is still an official holiday which marks a critical step forward for the emergence of the Jewish State. There is a street in Jerusalem named for this date, כט בנובמבר   Kaf Tet b’November which I lived very close to when I lived in Israel. It’s a quiet street in a residential neighbourhood.

Today is also the 21st of Kislev. According to Megillat Taanit,  on this date in the 4th century BCE, Alexander the Great met Shimon HaTzaddik, the High Priest of the Holy Temple. Shimon feared that Alexander would destroy Jerusalem, so he went out to meet him before he arrived at the city. Upon seeing the High Priest, Alexander made the rare move of dismounting and bowing. When asked to explain his actions, Alexander said that he'd previously seen the High Priest in a dream. Alexander interpreted this vision as a good omen and thus spared Jerusalem, peacefully absorbing Israel into his growing empire. In gratitude, the Sages decreed that the Jewish firstborn of that time be named Alexander -- which remains a Jewish name to this very day.

Interestingly, there is upcoming date in the Gregorian calendar which bears import in the halakha: starting on December 3rd, we switch to the winter nussach (wording) of the eighth blessing in the Amidah (מברך השנים Who Blesses the Years [for crops]). During the summer months we say ותן ברכה and give blessing upon the earth and during the winter—starting December 3rd—we say ותן טל ומטר  and give dew and rain upon the land. This may call to mind the second blessing in the Amidah. In that blessing, we say מוריד הטל Who causes dew to fall in the summer and משיב הרוח ומוריד הגשם Who causes the wind to blow and rain to fall in the winter. However, these statements are declarative as opposed to the eighth blessing wherein they are petitionary. Another distinction is that the shift between winter and summer nussachot for the second blessing occurs on Hebrew calendar dates (Pesach and Shemini Atzeret) whereas the nussach in the eighth blessing shifts from summer to winter on a Gregorian calendar date December 3rd . This is in part because the Rabbis of the Talmud understood the seasons to work according to the solar calendar, thus the Gregorian calendar was needed.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

NOVEMBER 24, 2018

 

Last week we had our first in a three-part series on Jewish Meditation, something about which I am quite passionate. We had a great turnout, more than ten people. Many came to the class curious as to what exactly constitutes Jewish Meditation. There is actually a long history of meditative practices and techniques going back centuries. Many of the ritual practices in general were based originally on something like a meditative technique.

One of the most overt references to meditation can be found in Mishnah Brachot. The Mishnah is discussing the proper mind-state which one must cultivate in order to pray:

One may only approach the Divine in prayer with a serious mindset. The early pious ones would sit for an hour before praying, in order to direct their minds to the Place. –Mishnah Brachot 5:1

This Mishnah features a rare illustrative reference to the ‘early pious ones’ who would ‘sit’ for an hour in order to cultivate the proper mind set for prayer. The verb שוהין shohin really has no proper English translation, aside from ‘sit’ or ‘stay’. It conveys the sense that these individuals would sit still in silence to clear their minds before prayer. This is most likely describing a type of meditation practice that existed in the Second Temple Period. Other techniques are referred to, sometimes overtly and sometimes in cryptic form, in a wide range of texts spanning over a thousand years. Over time, the rituals became isolated from these practices and now we’re left only with the shell, the exterior ritual Jewish practices.

The etymology of the word ‘meditation’ is Latin. Medi means ‘centre’ so to meditate is to centre one’s self or to find one’s centre. In Jewish religion and philosophy G-d is our centre. Thus, Jewish Meditation is a means to approach the Divine. The specific technique we’re using in our course is called ‘Breathing the Name’ and it aligns our breath with the Name of G-d. Connecting to G-d is not just a religious act; it is one that can benefit our mental, emotional and even physical health, as it says I align myself with you, G-d, and you heal me.—Psalm 30.


Jewish meditation opens us up to the spirituality that is already deeply infused into Jewish life. Everything from Kashrut, candle lighting, and counting the Omer are intended to help us cultivate deeper mindfulness and awareness. Taking a few minutes each day to focus on your breath also does a lot for your health.

If you aren’t able to join us next Monday for our final class in the series but are interested in learning, we would love to offer this again in the future so I hope you’ll let me or Cheryl know.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

* The Mishnah is the main written record of the Oral Law. It is divided into six orders (sedarim) and twenty-four tractates (massechtot). The first tractate is called Brachot – Blessings, as it deals mostly with prayer and ritual.

November 17, 2018

 

In response to the devastating gun violence we’ve seen in the United States in the last two weeks, my message on Shabbat morning has been about the need to counter darkness with light. In one of my teachings I expounded on a verse from Proverbs נר מצוה ותורה אור a mitzvah is a candle and the Torah is light. The study of Torah—what you’re engaged with at this moment—illuminates the human soul. The individual commandments we perform—mitzvot—traffic that light into the world. This is one of the reasons why I’m writing on the Taryag Mitzot, which enumerates and explains all 613 commandments found in the Torah; the more exposed to mitzvot we are, the more light we can channel into the world.

The second mitzvah in the Torah comes from Parashat Lech Lecha: “every male among you shall be circumcised” (Gen. 17:10). Circumcision—brit milah—is to take place on the 8th day of life, even on Shabbat and Yom Tov.  In order to be valid, the circumcision must be performed with the intention of bringing the child into the covenant—brit—of Avraham. It is for this reason that male converts who are already circumcised must undergo hatafat dam brit, drawing of blood for the covenant, upon conversion.

Rav Kahan relates the insight that one of the principal messages taught by circumcision is that we are not born perfect; perfection is achieved through our own efforts. My teacher, Rabbi Bradley Artson, teaches that the covenant is inscribed on the male sexual organ in order that Jewish men should have a constant reminder of our covenant—which obligates us in all other commandments in the Torah—on our most intimate and private place. Male sexuality is often used as a means to exert power and violence onto the world. Our Torah demands that we exert power and restrain inwardly instead. The circumcision reminds a man that his sexuality is not a weapon, that is should be used for holiness.

There is also great significance in the fact that the mitzvah is time-bound to the eighth day. Why eight? In Jewish numerology, the number seven represents the maximal extent of human growth potential. Eight represents the transcendence of human limitations; becoming supernatural and extending one’s self beyond space and time. Reb Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger (the 4th Gerrer Rebbe, author of Sfat Emet, an important work of Hassidic spirituality) taught that in order to transcend time, one must be fully engaged with time—thus the strict requirement of the mitzvah to be performed on the eighth day. Similarly, in order to transcend the limitations of three-dimensional space (the physical world) one must engage physically with Torah—thus the extremely physical requirement of circumcision.

May all of our Torah and mitzvot illuminate the world.

Shabbat Shalom,


 

November 9, 2018

 

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I gave a sermon about the word טוב tov – goodness. The main thesis of the sermon is that goodness is hidden in every moment, light is hidden in the darkness. It is our job to find and reveal that goodness every day. I offered my blessing that whatever trouble comes our way, we have the courage and resilience to seek out the light and goodness. None of us anticipated what was waiting for us around the corner. None of us thought American Jews would be shot dead in shul on a Shabbat morning in Pittsburgh. But I still believe everything I said on Rosh Hashanah.

Last Shabbat, synagogues around the world were packed to the rafters and it was “standing room only” for Solidarity Shabbat. This would have been enough, in and of itself, to show us that we have the courage and resilience to face down hatred and violence. But what we were not expecting was to see so many members of the Christian and Muslim communities come out to support us. At Holy Blossom temple here in Toronto, three-hundred Muslims came out and formed a ring of protection around the synagogue. This gesture sent a very powerful message that love is stronger than hate.

Sometimes it takes a major tragedy in order to arouse human compassion. It seems, at this moment at least, that the world has awoken to the fact that anti-Semitism has arisen again (it never went away) and is still a very serious problem. Psalm 92, the Psalm for Shabbat, says A fool does not know, and the ignorant person does not understand…When the wicked flourish like grass and evil sprouts up, it is only so that it will be utterly destroyed. Sometimes problems have to get worse before they get better. The culture of hatred and violence in the United States has been building up for years. What we are witnessing now, I pray, is the beginning of the end of that culture, the beginning of a time in which all of humanity sees the goodness and Divinity in one another.

Psalm 92 encourages us to take the long view of the troubles and evils we face in the world. This Psalm was selected by the Rabbinic masters as the Psalm of Shabbat because Shabbat is about transcending physical space and time. When you are in Shabbat-mode, you become aware of this long view; you can see with a clearer vision how the moments of evil are exactly that—moments. You can see that their rise to power is but a blip on the radar screen of time, how they fall almost as quickly as they rise, and how all things are enveloped by שלמה רבה Shlama Rabbah—the Great Peace, and how that Great Peace embraces all things.

The more we can shift our consciousness towards Shabbat consciousness, which transcends the bounds of time and space, and the more we are able to draw that consciousness into our daily lives, the closer we will bring ourselves and our world to that Great Peace.

Shabbat Shalom,

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November 3, 2018

 

Less than a week from the horrible events in Pittsburgh last Shabbat, our pain is still fresh. We are still learning details about the people who were murdered and dealing with a wide range of emotions: grief, sadness, outrage, and fear. The temptation is to fall into despair, but we must not give in to that temptation. Reb Nachman of Breslov—one of our brightest spiritual teachers of the last two centuries—taught that it is forbidden to despair. To contextualize, Reb Nachman lived in Ukraine in the early 19th century, a time of economic precarity and unspeakable antisemitic violence. Of his eight children, two girls died in infancy and two boys died before their second birthday. He had it rough, to say the least, and yet he taught vociferously of the obligation to find happiness and peace and to shun thoughts of despair.

The world is in great need of healers and teachers. In times of great darkness, we must be the light. We cannot let our torches go out, we need them to shine even brighter. There is a verse in Proverbs that says the human soul is G-d’s candle. This teaches that in order for G-d’s light to shine into the world, we must be open to receiving, reflecting and refracting that light. How do we do that? Another verse earlier in Proverbs says a Mitzvah is a candle, and the Torah is light. Thus, when we perform a mitzvah and engage in words of Torah, we are adding light to the world. To come to Shul, to give tzedakah, to study Torah in the so in the face of violence and hatred is a tremendous act of courage and resistance in and of itself. But it can’t stop there, we need to take Torah and mitzvot to the street and our public institutions: we need to standup against anti-Semitism and intolerance for the other in general. A few years ago, a man walked into a place of worship in Canada and gunned down more than twenty people, killing six of them. We must not see this as an attack on others; it was an attack on us. We need to tell the public, as well as our elected officials, our educators, and our business leaders, that we will not stand for bigotry. We need to show up at vigils and rallies not only for our own people, but for all people.

Do not let the events of the past week keep you down. Your energy, your wisdom and your light are needed. There simply isn’t time to despair; we have too much work in front of us. This Shabbat, UJA Federation is calling on all Jewish people to attend a Shabbat service in Solidarity with the victims. Please make every effort to be with us this Shabbat as we come together to pray, eat, and share space with one another. Especially if the events of last Shabbat have left you shaken up and upset, it will benefit you greatly to join us this Shabbat. In addition, if you need to speak in private my door is always open.

May the memories of the righteous always be for a blessing, and may G-d bless all of us to carry out the work of channeling the precious light of Torah into every corner of the Earth.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

October 27, 2018

 

This upcoming Shabbat is Parshat VaYera, in which G-d appears to Avraham while he is sitting at the entrance of his tent. So Avraham is standing in the presence of G-d, which the midrash understands as meaning that he was engaged in prayer. At this moment Avraham then sees three travelers passing along the way and he runs after them to greet them and to invite them to his home to eat and to rest. He breaks away from his private audience with the Creator of Reality in order to show these strangers his kindness and hospitality. From this, the midrash tells us, we learn that Hachnassat Orchim the welcoming of guests, takes precedence over prayer. 

One of the messages I taught on Rosh Hashanah is that when we are in relation with fellow human beings, we are seeing the face of G-d. These strangers who Avraham greets turn out to be messengers, angels of Hashem, who are actually on a mission to test Avraham. He obviously passed with flying colours. But we too are being tested every day. We all have our personal rituals, our preferences, our shtick. We don’t have to let go of it, but we must sometimes must suspend our own priorities in order to prioritize the vital mitzvah of welcoming new comers into our synagogue and into lives. For example, you may have your favourite seat in shul, but you have to be willing to give that up to accommodate a guest. To do so communicates our willingness to be in relation to that person and to welcome them.

There is another message here in Avraham’s actions: he ran after those travellers. He didn’t wait for them to come to him. This shows that welcoming guests is not a passive mitzvah, it requires us to take active initiative. How far out of our way are we wiling to go to make our community an open and welcoming space for guests. Are we willing to sing Adon Olam to a different tune, are we willing to give up an Aliyah to the Torah to someone else? That is the test that Hashem puts before us each and every day.

People and communities are like plants; when they have water they thrive, when they do not, they wilt. Our water is Torah; when we practice and embody the middot—the principles—which are exemplified by our ancestors and lauded by our Sages, we will blossom like the date palm, and will be strong as the cedar –Psalm 92.

Shabbat Shalom,

October 20, 2018

 

As I disseminate these weekly bits and pieces of my brain, you will now begin to see a wider variety of subjects. Some of them, as I stated previously, will be from Taryag Mitzvot, the 613 Commandments based on Sefer HaKhinukh, others will be about important Jewish scholars, and some will be about general subjects of knowledge.

One area which is in great need of disambiguation is the subject of Kabbalah, a term which has come to mean the study of Jewish mysticism in general. The word Kabbalah comes from the root קבל to receive. Generally, this term is used to refer to the whole Jewish tradition and practice which we have received from our ancestors. In recent centuries it has been applied somewhat exclusively to Jewish mysticism. David Sheinkin (z”l) author of Path of the Kabbalah suggests that this term denotes a meditative technique used to elicit prophetic, intuitive wisdom which we receive from higher worlds.

Jewish mysticism, according to traditional sources, began even before Abraham. Sefer Raziel purports itself to have been transmitted to Adam through angelic beings. Our purpose is not to evaluate the veracity of statements like these. The earliest known mystical texts which have been confirmed by academic sources are a series of documents which comprise the Maaseh Merkavah and Maaseh Bereshit, which outline meditative and magical techniques. During the Mishnaic and Talmudic period (100-600 CE) we get two important texts: the Hekhalot and Sefer Yetzirah, which are similar to the texts which precede them. During the Gaonic/Late Rabbinic age (600-800 CE), the only major innovations are the development of a complex angelology and the Ba’alei Shem individuals who would derive ‘synthetic names of G-d’ by manipulating scripture and other holy text. In the early Middle Ages (800-1300) we see the development of Abulafian Mysticism, which focuses on specific meditation techniques based on the Hebrew letters.

At the end of the 13th century (roughly 1290) the Sefer HaZohar, the Book of Radiance, is published. This is an extensive collection of mystically themed texts—gathered from numerous Spanish and French scholars—which model themselves after the Midrash and Talmud and speak in very cryptic, poetic and symbolic language. The publication of this book marks the formal beginning of what we can call Kabbalah.

In the 16th century, when the teachings of the Zohar were already well-known among Jewish mystics, there arose a scholar by the name of R. Isaac Luria. He, along with this teacher R. Moshe Cordovero, has been displaced by the Spanish Inquisition and ended up in Tzfat in Ottoman Palestine. Rav Luria expounded upon the meaning of the Zohar such that it became explicit and understandable to its readers. His
interpretations—Lurianic Kabbalah—influenced all of the work to come after.

Rabbinic authorities, fearing the dangers of Kabbalah, forced it underground where it remained for around two hundred years. Eventually, a young man, R. Isaac Eliezer (The Ba’al Shem Tov) rose to prominence in Ukraine, and founded modern Hasidism, a movement which liberated Judaism from what it claimed were the shackles of Talmudism and Orthodoxy.

My personal interest in Jewish mysticism arose because I already had a predilection for studying mysticism and spirituality of all cultures. I had grown up in a typical liberal synagogue which emphasized ethical values and Tikkun Olam which, important as they are, did not convey a feeling of spirituality. When I learned, as a teenager, that Judaism also possessed a rich mystical, spiritual tradition I was very intrigued and began a life-long journey of discovery which eventually led to my adoption of a much more strict observance of halakha.

One of our upcoming programs is on Jewish Meditation where you can discover first-hand a little bit of what Jewish mysticism is all about.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

 

October 13, 2018

 

Last week I introduced Rabbi A.Y. Kahan’s The Taryag Mitzvot which is based on the 16th century text Sefer HaChinukh. Some of you guessed correctly that the first commandment, the first mitzvah of the Torah was given not just to the Israelites, and not even strictly to humanity, but to all sentient life: be fruitful and multiply and fill up the Earth, פרו ורבו ומלאו את הארץ  from Genesis 1:28.

It is particularly interesting that this be classified as a mitzvah for several reasons. Firstly, the Torah does not say ויצו  “and G-d Commanded,” rather, it saysויברך   “and G-d Blessed”. This discrepancy was certainly seized upon by those who wished to differ with the Sefer HaKhinukh’s designation of the mitzvot, but this designation ultimately prevailed. A blessing can have a command embedded within it, after all. This changes how we view commandments as well as how we view blessings; the two are interconnected. 

I find it intriguing also that the commandment was given to all sentient beings: tiny fish and insects, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals, whereas humans are they only ones who could understand the words. This indicates that this mitzvah-blessing was given through non-verbal means. The ability, instinct, and drive to procreate is hardwired into every living organism. It’s in our DNA. Even humans, who could understand the words, did not have to be told. We are plenty interested in doing it without religious imperative. What this mitzvah does is turn the mundane, physical act of sexual reproduction into a form of worship. It also enshrines procreation with importance, such that no religious authority can come along and say we should remain celibate. G-d used the Torah to write our DNA, so in that way, the imperative to have children is built into us.

It is problematic, however, for us to apply this mitzvah to biological procreation exclusively. Many people may wish to have children but are unable to do for any number of reasons, be it their medical or general circumstances. Same-sex couples and others can adopt or use surrogacy, but this does not really solve our problem. The fact is some people, despite their willingness, will not manage, or perhaps do not even want to have children. The Rabbis were well aware of this problem. Many of them, devout and pious as they were did not have children of their own. It was well-accepted many centuries ago that having students was a means by which one can fulfill the mitzvah of be fruitful and multiply. Through teaching others, we pass on our knowledge, and our wisdom. The transmission of Torah knowledge and wisdom is what makes having children an act of holiness for Jewish people. Thus, when you are able to do that without biological children, you have fulfilled the mitzvah. Transmitting our DNA, while necessary for life to endure, is no more holy than a male fish fertilizing millions of eggs on a riverbed. It can be done with no thought and no commitment to deal with the consequences. Being a guide or a mentor to another person is arguably an even better way to fulfil this mitzvah.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Image result for DNA background

 

October 6, 2018

 

That’s it! The High Holidays are over. We gathered on Simchat Torah, unrolled a Torah scroll, danced and celebrated our three-thousand-year relationship with G-d which is conducted through the medium of this magnificent text.

But wait a minutedoesn’t Shavuot celebrate the Torah as well? The difference between Shavuot and Simchat Torah is simple. Whereas on Shavuot we celebrate our receiving Torah, on Simchat Torah, we celebrate something different: our study and engagement with Torah. This engagement happens through a number of means, including the weekly Torah and Haftarah readings and regular study. The more time you spent being עוסק בתורה -- occupied with Torah, the harder you danced on Simchat Torah.

In the spirit of renewing and restarting this Torah engagement, I will begin us on a journey which will expose us to a multiplicity of Jewish scholars and texts throughout the ages. The first such text we will encounter is Rabbi A.Y. Kahan’s The Taryag Mitzvot. Taryag (תרי"ג) is the Hebrew notation of the number 613. Rabbi Kahan’s book is a modern facsimile of Sefer HaKhinuch, which in the 16th century was credited to Rabbi Aaron HaLevi (1235-1290). Whether Rav Aaron actually wrote Sefer HaKhinuch or not, we will never know. This work was the first to systematize the 613 and list them specifically. This was not an easy task as there is dispute, for example, as to what constitutes a mitzvah unto itself and what is a required component of broader mitzvah. The number 613 was first promulgated by Rav Simlai in the Talmud (Menachot 23b).

Before I actually begin introducing these mitzvot amidst these weekly Spotlights, let me ask you: What do you think is the first mitzvah in the Torah?

Send me your guesses via email (rabbi@beitrayim.org). The first one to get it right wins a prize! (No Googling or other forms of cheating.) I encourage you to do this as an exercise: open a Chumash and look for what you think might be the first mitzvah.

Shabbat Shalom,

Image result for The Taryag Mitzvot

 

September 29, 2018

 

 Shabbat Shalom, 

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September 22, 2018

 

Many of us are familiar with the saying from the Talmud that one should go immediately from Yom Kippur break-fast to build one’s Sukkah. This is really the meaning of Yasher Koach, which does not translate well—literally. Yasher Koach is like saying You should go from strength to strength. It’s not so much Good job! It’s more like That was great, keep doing more of that! Going straight from Yom Kippur to build a Sukkah is going from mitzvah to mitzvah, from strength to strength.

Hopefully, Yom Kippur was powerful, uplifting, and inspiring and hopefully you feel good about that; now another mitzvah is falling right into your lap: Sukkot. The truth is, most Jews are tuning out at this point. Many feel that the process of making teshuvah, and the closeness with G-d that they feel on the High Holidays ends at the final blasting of the Shofar and Havdalah at the end of Yom Kippur. The truth is the High Holidays are not over yet. Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret are an integral part of them.

I’m a three-day-a-year-Jew, people say, but it’s not true. Not at the fundamental core of who they are. We were all born with the innate potential to be Mashiach, the innate potential to be holy, and to rise to higher and higher heights of holiness. That’s the whole point of Yom Kippur! You don’t have to be a three-day-a-year Jew. You can transform yourself.

If Yom Kippur is the great transformation, the great awakening, then Sukkot is the follow-through we need in order to sustain that awakening. It brings the high of Yom Kippur down to Earth so that we can leverage our inspiration to shift our lifestyle.

Come shake the Lulav and Etrog with us, come to the beer tasting at my Sukkah, come dance with the Torah. If Yom Kippur has lit a candle for your spirit, don’t let the candle go out, use it to light other candles, and increase the light in our world.

Shabbat Shalom,

 

September 15, 2018

 

When I was seven years old, a volunteer from an environmental organization came to my school and spoke about the environment and what we humans are doing to it. I was petrified. Having inherited my mother's propensity to worry about things I cannot control, I became frantically anxious about the environment. What would happen when I grew up? Would we have a world we could survive in? Would people and animals be mutated with hideous disfigurements? Would everything be toxic?

In the last couple of years, these fears have resurfaced as our impact on the global ecosystem becomes more clear. Extreme hurricanes, tornados, deadly heat waves and ice storms are the new normal. Every summer the smoke from the forest fires in Western Canada is so thick that even healthy people cannot go outdoors in BC, Alberta, Washington, Idaho, and Yukon. My fear for humanity’s ability to survive the next two hundred years has turned into something like despair. But more recently, in the past few months, we are seeing a glimmer of hope.

Due largely to media attention, there are now massive efforts underway to limit plastic consumption and to clean up the continent-sized masses of plastic waste that pollute our oceans. Last week, I was delighted to scroll through the news to find this article which explains how the Great Barrier Reef—which was pronounced dead at 25 million years old earlier this year—is showing signs of recovery. This may or may not be due to efforts by scientists to regrow the coral earlier last year.

 

Rebbe Nachman of Breslav teaches If you believe that you can break it, believe that you can fix it. If you stop smoking, your body eventually recovers. Likewise, if we stop destroying our ecosystem, we can—with the right science and technology, the right consciousness and sufficient willpower—heal our world. There are concrete actions we can all take to be a part of the solution, but the solution starts within each of us.

In this time of Teshuvah when we are open to positive change, let us take this news as a reminder that we have before us an opportunity to heal and to repair what we have broken.

Shabbat Shalom,

Image result for Great Barrier Reef

 

September 8, 2018

 

We are standing now at the edge. There are now just a few days between us and the moment of truth, the moment when we will once again come together as adudat echad, a singular union and petition G-d to accept us once again and inscribe us in the Book of Life.

Even for those of us who are not particularly pious, there is a sense of trepidation around the High Holidays; they’re not called Days of Awe for nothing. Some feel a sense of anxiety, a need to get one’s affairs in order, a need to tie up loose ends and clear the air. There is fear. This is a totally normal response to moments like the Days of Awe, which remind us of our mortality and the gravity of our responsibilities.

This mindset can be a positive thing as it can stimulate the growth and soul-searching that are necessary in order for the High Holidays to have meaning. However, it needs to be balanced with the opposite mindset, joy, trust, and love. There is an old Rabbinic drash on the name Elul, the last month of the Hebrew year, the month in which there are now only a couple of days left. Elul in Hebrew is spelled אלול, and drash is that this is an acronym for אני לדודי ודודי לי I am my beloved’s and my beloved’s is mine. This phrase comes from Shir HaShirim, written as a love song which the Rabbinic tradition understands as a song between G-d and the children of Israel. During Elul, we long for a closeness to G-d. When we can truly feel that closeness to G-d, it is a luminous feeling of being totally loved and supported  Fear and anxiety melt away of themselves in warmth of this light.

On Rosh Hashanah, we will come face to face with our Creator, who is often called King. The King is usually on the throne, up in the palace, surrounded by a wall, and moat with the gates closed, far away in the capital. Right now though, The King is in the field. We have rare close access to our Creator, the source of all life and energy in the Universe. The gates will swing open and we will be invited to the inner chamber. Bring with you only those desires which really matter; your health, your family, your relationships, and your soul. Let everything else, the emails, the bills, the social media, melt away. They will be there when you come out on the other side. For now, our only job is to get closer to G-d, and that means to get closer to ourselves, our true selves, our highest selves.

May 5779 be a year of blessing, health, wealth, and only good things.

Shanah Tovah,

 

September 1, 2018

 

In a short time we will gather for Slichot services, which we recite in the week leading up to Rosh Hashanah. Sephardi communities actually recite Slichot during the entire month of Elul. The Slichot  service is an amalgam of verses, prayers, psalms, and songs all with the central theme of forgiveness and atonement. It was already in existence during the Geonic period (500-800 CE) but communities continued to add components to the service throughout the Middle Ages to produce its present form.

One of the central elements of Slichot is the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy (י"ג מדות ) which were first revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai as the formula through which G-d would forgive the Israelites after the worship of the Golden Calf. Another central element is the Vidui, the confession in which we list all of our sins in alphabetical order. Note here that both of these elements indicate that we are seeking forgiveness for ourselves not as individuals but as a community.

Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) who served as the chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of British Palestine was a poet and mystic. He wrote that Slichot is recited not only on behalf of the Jewish people, but certainly for the entire human race. More than that, we recite Slichot on behalf of all beings everywhere in G-d’s universe. There is a long thread of Rabbinic thought which holds that it is not only the Jews who are judged on Rosh Hashanah, but all beings. In light of this, it stands to reason that Jewish communities should seek forgives for all beings, not just their own nation.

Our lives, our actions and their consequences are all interconnected, thus it is fitting that we have a universal means by which we can extricate ourselves from the negative actions we have accumulated. I hope you will find this an inspiring thought with which to enter Shabbat, and I do hope you will join us at Shabbat’s closing for an inspiring Slichot. Details can be found in this bulletin. 

 

Shabbat Shalom, 

August 25, 2018

 

During the month of Elul it is traditional to recite Psalm 27 at the end of each service. Doing so is part of our preparation for the approaching new year and high holidays. It begins,  G-d is my light and salvation.

Rosh Hashanah is, among other things, the birthday of the Universe, marking the anniversary of the Creation narrative, Bereshit. The first ‘thing’ created was light; not the physical light produced by sun and stars (they, after all, were only created on the fourth day) but a more ephemeral, subtle kind of light. It is the light of Bereshit from which all subsequent created things were formed, thus it is a kind of ‘building block’ of the Universe. Everything around you is composed of it. (As an aside, Einstein’s theory of relativity states that all matter is energy in a condensed form, and some scientists now believe that all matter may be composed of light). Thus, the Torah and science are not far off from one another.

On Rosh Hashanah, it is said that G-d’s light, radiates at a much higher magnitude. This actually begins in Elul, each day the light increases ever so slightly, and this first verse of Psalms is alluding to that. We can benefit from this light through our own introspection. In the Slichot prayers we read the line ה' מחפש כל חדרי בטן, G-d searches all the chambers of the gut. The ‘chambers of the gut’ i.e. the intestines were thought in ancient times to be the seat of emotion; morality was thought to resonate through the gut. The image of G-d conducting a room to room search is reminiscent of bedikat hametz the search for leaven crumbs on the night before Passover. This is really an invitation for us to search inside of ourselves to seek out the source of our own defilements and impurities. The cheshbon nefesh (spiritual accounting) of Elul should include the physical body as well as the mind. Did you know there are more nerves in your gut than in your brain? This adds new meaning to the expression ‘gut feeling’. You know something is true or false, right or wrong because you can ‘feel it in your kishkes’.

Elul is an opportunity to draw the light of G-d’s increased illuminating presence not only into your mind but into your body. This can be very healing on both a physical and emotional level. Take some time this month to open a holy book, a chumash, a siddur etc. whether you are able to read the Hebrew letters or not, gaze softly at the white spaces between letters and breathe deeply.

May the light of Elul bring you increased awareness
of yourself, healing and complete
Teshuvah.

Shabbat Shalom, 

August 18, 2018

 

Last Shabbat we had the privilege of hearing Raffi Fox speak about his trip to Israel. In his speech, Raffi briefly referenced the arrest of a Conservative Rabbi in Israel and how his Ramah group made effort to express solidarity with him. It occurred to me that some of you might not be aware of this incident, so I thought I should provide some background information as well as my personal thoughts on the matter. 

On July 19th, at 5:30am, police arrested Rabbi Dubi Haiyun at his home under recent provisions to Israel’s Laws of Marriage and Divorce, which stipulate that a Masorti (the equivalent of Conservative outside of North America) Rabbi may not officiate at Jewish weddings in Israel. Since his arrest there has been a storm of protest from the Conservative movement both inside and outside of Israel.

There have been numerous articles and perspectives written in the weeks that have followed. I have provided links to two opinion pieces from different sides of the issue:

https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2018-07-23/israelis-doubts-after-rabbi-detention-jewish-nation-state-law by Conservative Rabbi Daniel Gordis.

https://forward.com/opinion/407701/stop-trying-to-bring-conservative-and-reform-judaism-to-israel-we-already by Einat Wilf and Ram Vromen, of the Forward.
 

The Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s outsized influence on the government and control over civil affairs is once again being called into question. This is an important issue, the effects of which have a wider impact than just Jews of non-Orthodox streams. Women, the LGBT community and non-Jews living in Israel are all negatively affected by what is essentially an extremist-religious wing of the government.

It is vital that we support civil, secular, and pluralist organizations and institutions in Israel. Israel is slowly inching away from democracy and toward theocracy and these groups are on the front lines trying to stop that from happening. They are not having much success. This incident perhaps is in indicator that, in the words of Rabbi Haiyun after his arrest, Iran is already here.

While we, as non-Orthodox Jews, are a misunderstood and often mistreated specimen in Israel, it is important that we remain humble and not judge our fellow Jews, even as they judge us. Israel is, and always will be, first and foremost, a place of refuge for Jews who are persecuted minorities in their own countries. If they don’t accept my Rabbinic ordination, they will still accept me. I will continue to love Israel, despite her imperfections. We have to fight the forces of illiberalism and fundamentalism, but not with ego. Only by loving our fellow Jews can we ever hope to heal the sickness that is enveloping us as a people.

Shabbat Shalom, 

August 11, 2018

 


 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

 

 

August 4, 2018

 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught expansively on the quality of radical amazement, taking in the wonder that is existence itself. To be fascinated with existence, he said, is the primary religious emotion. I have always found great inspiration in learning of important scientific discoveries, especially those concerned with the nature of existence. In keeping with this concept of radical amazement, some of my weekly writings will feature scientific articles. 

A few weeks ago, scientists discovered the brightest object in the Universe, which turns out to be a Quasar orbiting a supermassive black hole. This object is a staggering 13 billion light years away. Bear in mind that the Universe itself is just under 14 billion years old. The light emitted by this object has reached us only now (which probably means the object isn’t there anymore) and has been traveling basically since the beginning of the Universe. Think about how bright that object would have to be in order to emit light for 13 billion years.

 

How does this relate to Torah? A light that has shone since the beginning of time –does that ring any bells? It is reminiscent, perhaps of the light of Bereshit (Genesis), when G-d said Let there be light. We know that this Quasar is not literally the light of Bereshit because the latter was not a physical light. Yet we can still draw some insight from it. The Torah is called a light. By Torah, I mean not just the physical five books of Moses, but the Primordial Torah, the consciousness from which G-d radiated the Universe into existence. Like this Quasar, the Torah is a light which, though rooted deep in the past can illuminate the present. When we allow Torah to enter our hearts and minds, we can transform ourselves the world around us. As bright as this Quasar is (or was) the light emanated by the Torah, though not visible to the naked eye, is indeed much brighter. The more we study and engage with Torah, the more we will expose the light of Torah which is in all things.

So may we all be blessed.
 

Shabbat Shalom,

To read the article, click here

main article image

July 28, 2018

 

You may have seen a video this week of a 200 lb. rock falling from the Kotel in Jerusalem. By the looks of it the rock fell at least forty feet before hitting the platform which was set up at the foot of the bottom. Luckily, no one was standing on the platform and no injuries resulted. It was noted that this occurred in the egalitarian section of the Kotel, a much older layer of the plaza which actually dates to the first temple period.

A friend of mine (who is, for the record, egalitarian) mused that perhaps this was an ominous sign of what G-d thinks of egalitarian prayer spaces. One of my Rabbinic colleagues had a more poignant comment, "Sometimes I forget that this Wall is just a wall, it is subject to the laws of entropy like all other things." His comment reminds me of a story about the great Thai Buddhist master, Ajahn Cha:

One time Ajahn Cha was walking with some friends through a Buddhist temple in Cambodia when they passed by a statue of the Buddha with a large crack in it.

“Oh what a shame,” said one of his friends said, “it’s cracked.”

Ajahn Cha replied “That it is cracked shows that the Buddha’s teachings are true. It is the way of things that it must be cracked.”

Judaism also teaches that there is nothing permanent except G-d, all other things come and go. It is ironic that the Kotel has become such a phenomenon in modern times. True, it is the closest remnant that we have to our ancient and most holy site, and the historical significance of that must not be understated. For Jews who have never been to Israel, a visit to the Kotel can be very meaningful and impactful. That said, from a halakhic perspective the Kotel is no different than any other Shul.
G-d’s plan, according to Maimonides, was that we evolve away from the mode of worship practiced in the Temple and graduate to new forms. So the sentimentality attached to this place, over which we are now fighting so bitterly with our Orthodox brothers and sisters, is perhaps misplaced.

G-d destroyed the Temple because we ignored one another and worshipped idols. The time has come to stop making an idol of the Temple and start paying more attention to one another.

Shabbat Shalom,

July 21, 2018

 

On Saturday night we will mark Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, which is the

anniversary of the destruction of both the 1st and 2nd Temples. Av is a particularly inauspicious month for the Jewish people. Throughout medieval and modern history, the 9th of Av witnessed numerous massacres, crusades, expulsions, pogroms, and extermination. Tisha B’Av is commemorated through fasting (the only full 25 hour fast aside from Yom Kippur) and the reading of Megillat Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, which is a section of Jeremiah. In this part of the prophecy, Jeremiah bewails the ruthlessness with which G-d has abandoned His people and struggles to understand how we were deserving of such incredible brutality. When staring into the void of human suffering, we too find it enormously challenging to understand how

G-d can allow events like the Holocaust to occur. In the end, there are no good answers to this question. No words can justify it.

Entropy is a fact of the universe; things exist for a time, and then they do not exist. Sometimes this transition is sudden and violent and this is what makes us cry out Eicha! How can this happen?  And there are no answers. In the end, Jeremiah takes some comfort in knowing that there is hope for the future. Like the seeds that germinate and sprout in the ashes and heat of a forest fire, the Jewish culture and our faith find a way to blossom after every

destruction. On the personal level as well, we must find a way to live on and to live well.

In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche: to live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in your suffering.

July 14, 2018

 

The final portion of the Bamidbar (Numbers), Parashat Massei begins with a thorough recounting of the entire forty year journey from Egypt through the Sinai desert into the Kingdom of Moab (modern day Jordan and Saudi Arabia) right up to their present position on the east bank of the Jordan River. The Israelites are then commanded on how to draw tribal territories and to designate cities of refuge. The Torah does not waste words, so why is it repeating the various legs of the journey? The answer is, you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you are, and you don’t know where you are unless you know where you’re coming from. During their forty years in the desert, the Israelites went through a lot as a people; there were numerous errors and failures on both personal and national levels. We cannot learn from our mistakes if we do not retain an awareness of our past actions.

Our present state, the state in which we find ourselves today, as individuals and as a collective, is a result of past actions. Some of those actions took place hours ago (the food we ate for example), other actions took place decades ago (our relatives migrating through and away from the Old World). Knowing this is critical in understanding who we are and where we’re heading. The parsha does not only gaze backwards; it looks to future actions as a means to redeem the mistakes of the past—each tribal territory would be appropriate to that tribe’s historical experience as well as their population. We cannot be stuck dwelling in the past; we must draw on our experiences and use them to determine the right way to move forward.

May we never be so caught up in the day-to-day that we forget our history, and may we never get so stuck in the past that we lose awareness of the ever-unfolding present moment.

 

Shabbat Shalom

   

 

 

July 7, 2018

 

Last week, our entire community was shocked and saddened by the sudden loss of Rabbi Chezi z”l. I was grateful to have had the opportunity to meet the rabbi and spend a bit of time with him over the past couple of months. I am disappointed that I won’t have the opportunity to learn more from and with Rabbi Chezi z”l, but grateful that so many of you have shared your warm memories and stories. I hope that you will continue to do so.


May his memory always be a blessing.

Wed, March 20 2019 13 Adar II 5779